For all the political consultants out there devising last-minute attack strategies, for all the TV critics pining for action and confrontation, and for all the campaign script writers searching for prime-time zingers and laugh lines, here are a few words of advice from a panel of eight Baltimore-area voters:
Butt out of the presidential debates.
The voters would rather be slightly bored than greatly entertained if that's what it takes to learn where the presidential candidates stand on the issues, and the more detail the better.
In other words, these eight voters -- who watched the first two presidential debates together at the invitation of The Sun -- greatly preferred Thursday's sober, civilized discussion of issues to the blathering, unruly shootout that occurred two days earlier in the debate of the vice-presidential candidates.
"That was a disaster," said Darlyn Youngman, 29, a panel member from Baltimore County.
"A mockery," agreed Gwen Laws, 64, of Baltimore.
That's not to say that the format of the first two presidential face-offs was flawless, nor were the questions always on the mark, the panelists said. Neither the journalists who asked questions during the first debate nor the members of the public who interrogated in the second adequately addressed topics that some panelists would like to hear about.
Panelist Russ Bonchu Jr., for example, wishes somebody would ask the candidates what they'd do to help small businesses. As a salesman of corporate retirement plans, many of his clients are small businesses and they're hurting. "I would like to know what they're going to do to stem the tide of bankruptcies," said Mr. Bonchu, 46, of Harford County.
Candy Martin, 36, from Baltimore County, said she wants more questions on education.
As for the questions asked so far, "Overall I was not pleased [on Thursday]," said Chris Hulett, 19, of Baltimore County. "I think some of the questions were a waste of time and energy."
But generally the voters on the panel have given high marks to the candidates for sticking to the issues instead of personal attacks, especially in the second presidential debate.
"I think the debate was much cleaner, much more adult," said Ed LaRue, 71, of Baltimore.
"I'm very pleased that they've gotten to the issues, that they're actually talking about substance rather than all the garbage," Mr. Bonchu said.
Their feelings contrasted with those of some news media people and political analysts who seem to be longing for a nasty scrap to break out. To that crowd, issue statements have long since become old hat.
Such an attitude misses the point of the debates, Ms. Martin said. Like many voters, she hasn't had enough time to pay close attention to the campaign until recently, so explanations of where the candidates stand on the issues are still relevant.
"I don't think they [the candidates] are there to be entertaining," she said. "I like the way the last debate went, with the discussions of the issues."
But even some members of the information-hungry panel thought parts of last Thursday's debate were a trifle long-winded.
"I was hoping it would be more disorderly," Mr. Winkler said. "It got to a point where it was just a question followed by a long drawn-out answer from one candidate, and then from another, and then from a third. . . . It got a little tedious."
It's not squabbling Mr. Winkler wanted to see, he said. It's just that he would have preferred an opportunity for more give-and-take among the candidates in order to heighten the contrasts between their positions.
The format for half of tonight's debate -- featuring a single moderator to ask questions and referee disputes -- may allow for that kind of interplay. But neither Mr. Winkler nor the other members of the panel said they want the exchanges to degenerate to the occasional anarchy of the vice presidential debate.
Mostly, they want more information.
Ms. Laws, for one, said she'd "like to hear more in-depth answers on when this recession's going to end. I know they can't pinpoint it, but it would be a help if they could project when they might be able to start putting people back to work."
The eight members of the panel were chosen from random telephone calls by House Market Research Inc. of Potomac. Four are women, four are men. Seven are white, one is black. Their ages are from 19 to 71, and their occupations cover a wide range, including a retail salesman, a retiree, a hospital admitting officer, a medical assistant, a customer service representative for a phone company, a salesman of corporate retirement plans, the assistant director of a day-care center and the operator of a small music business.
The panel members concluded that Democrat Bill Clinton won the first two debates (by a 6-0 vote in the first debate, with two ties; and by a 5-2-1 vote in the second, with two picking President Bush and one picking Ross Perot). Each time Mr. Clinton got high marks for specific answers on the issues.
The panel will also view tonight's third and final debate.